Thursday, December 18, 2014

Building Our House

I have never, ever been someone who wanted to tackle home construction.  I don't have the vision to see how this room or that might look differently with a wall torn down.  I also really, really dislike the dust and mess of remodeling, the noise of construction, the various headaches of planning and purchasing and completion.  Once when I was in my early teens, my family embarked on a home remodeling and expansion project.  It took place at the other end of our house from my bedroom.  I doubt I was inconvenienced in any way.  Yet it had an impact on me, though I remember very little of the process.  For the family in Building Our House, it has a very different impact.

The very first page shows the little family (mom, dad and two children) crammed into the front seat of an old pickup truck.  On the title page, they are shown packing everything they own into that truck.  As they turn in to their new lot,  the truck is crammed high with those belongings, covered with an old tarp.  The narrator says "Today is moving day.  We left our old house  in the city and are moving to the country."  As the pages move on, it turns out that the family is building their own house (which you might have suspected from the title!), on a lot where a house has never been before.  They believe have everything they need to get started - tools, plans, and that truck.  The narrator (who is now revealed as the perhaps four year old  daughter) tells us the truck's name is Willys.

As the family gets started, some help arrives.  The little girl describes when the trailer where they'll live arrive.  Then a truck arrives with a drill to drill for water, and later the electric company comes to raise wires.  After water and gas are installed to help make the little trailer ready for them, the family launches into purchasing and gathering supplies.  She states that her dad works at a job in town during the week, so they do all the work on the weekends. 

Her Grandpa comes to dig the foundation with a backhoe, once her dad has staked out the property.  The hard labor begins in earnest now, framing, pouring concrete, shaping lumber.  As the winter approaches (the second winter of this project already!) they work harder than ever to complete the house.  There are fundamental pieces that must be in place before the snow - chimney, roof, siding and windows.  But, as often happens, the winter winds and storms arrive early.

The little family is finally in the house as the snow grows thick upon the ground, but there is still much to do, including the all-important plumbing, electricity, insulation and other  crucial, slow steps.  Finally, the home is ready and there is a moving party to welcome the family home.  The little girl (who has grown a lot older over the 18-ish months took place), notes "Once the moving is done everyone goes back to their homes, but my family stays right where we are.  It's our very first night in our new home."  This is a satisfying ending to all the work, and in fact even to the readers it feels like an enormous accomplishment.

There have been other big events that take place over the course of the book, if you are careful to examine the illustrations.  When the family first arrives at the field where they'll build, a stray cat is stalking through the weeds.  As the time continues, you can see that same cat first being fed outside, frolicking with the children, and once they've all moved inside the new house, giving birth to kittens that also become part of the family.  And there is a new addition to the human family during the house building too.  Once the family begins living inside, the mother's stomach is unmistakably ungainly with a new baby.  As they move in, officially, you can spot the new baby nestled in her arms.

I've referred to the detail in the illustrations but they are really such a great match to Bean's story.  Even though I've highlighted some of the changes, there are many other items to pore over as the year goes by.  The father often looks haggard and frazzled, as a father working full-time while building a house might.  The mother is clearly more architecturally-inclined - she studies the plans and does all the measuring.  She also does her fair share of the construction work too.  It is fun to see a gopher pop up in the field from time to time, clearly not deterred by the cat.

There is poetry in the writing, as well.  One of my favorite scenes is this one: "On a clear, cold night Dad sets the corners of the foundation by the North Star.  One wall will face north to ward off the wind, one east to welcome the morning, one south to soak in the sun, and one west to see out the day."  That is beautiful writing - I can feel the winter night, the care that went into choosing each corner of the foundation.  This is just the beginning of the process, but it needs to be right.

There are many things I love about this family and this story.  I cannot imagine the vision this took, the persistence throughout the long winters, the strength and energy to keep working when it got hard or overwhelming.  I love that this is truly a family project - on every page, everyone is working, even the children.  Sure, they have fun, hiding under wheelbarrows or splashing in wading pools, but the children also help measure, tote lumber and help lay insulation.  They are involved, and it's a family accomplishment.  And when the work cannot be finished by their little unit, their extended family comes.  Aunts and uncles help with the frame-raising and I've already mentioned Grandpa coming with the backhoe.

One of the best parts about this story is the author's note.  Bean explains that this book was inspired by his own parents building their house.  He includes photos from that time in his life, and it's so enchanting to see these photos echoed on the previous spreads.  I think this sentence summarizes both families very nicely: "My parents thought of themselves as homesteaders and brought to housebuilding a pioneering spirit of ingenuity and independence."  This was truly a leap of faith, but it paid off in some amazing ways.

Building Our House. Jonathan Bean.  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013.

Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Otis and the Scarecrow

"It was summer when the scarecrow first came
to the farm where the friendly little tractor named
Otis lived, back when the corn was tall and ripe."
I'm not sure if I've mentioned my beloved farm family before on this blog.  Prairie Heritage Farm is owned by a family that I am lucky enough to call my friends, the Cowgills.  Their farm is in Power, Montana, roughly 99 miles from my home in Helena.  During the summer for the past two years, I've driven every other week up to the farm to pick up shares of the harvest for people who live here in Helena.  I do this about 18 times a summer, from June through the beginning of October.  Knowing the Cowgills, and participating in their farm, has enriched our lives in so many ways.  They are wonderful people with a real passion for what they do.  The food that we get from the farm (vegetables, grains, turkeys, eggs and pork, at various times of the year) has taught me so much about eating what is fresh, and experimenting with new foods and tastes.  And it is such an amazing gift - people who purchase shares here in Helena come to my house to pick them up.  I love talking with people about what is currently growing on the farm, what looks great that week, and advocating for my favorite family farm.  And even more importantly, the Cowgill children, Willa and Eli, have the most amazing collection of farm-themed children's books I've ever seen.
That's where Otis comes in.  The farmer puts out the scarecrow as the corn ripens so that the crows will be frightened away.  And of course, at first his ploy works.  All the crows disappear.  What Otis sees, though, isn't scary - it's a potential new friend.  Otis is already friends with all the farm animals, and there's no reason why the scarecrow shouldn't be his friend too.  But when Otis and the pack of animals approach the scarecrow, "He just stood there, that sour look on his face, staring at the cornfield.  The animals didn't know what to think."  As autumn approaches, the animals have all given up on the scarecrow as someone to engage with.  As pumpkins are harvested, "The farm looked different, but Otis loved the changing seasons and he worked and played as hard as ever, putt puff puttedy chuff." 
This year I not only got a share through the summer, but also got a turkey at Thanksgiving, and have gotten a fall/winter share the past few weeks.  In Montana, the growing seasons are short, and many crops can be adversely affected by the snow and cold that can arrive as early as September.  Crops are grown in greenhouses or under hoops to protect them and keep the soil warm as long as possible.  I am unexpectedly grateful for fresh baby lettuces, spinach and kale this fall.
As autumn continues, Otis and his friends are playing the quiet game.  "The quiet game is a contest in which everyone must stay quiet and still.  No sounds, no laughing, no snorting, quacking, giggling, or puffing."  They all play together - ducks, horse, puppy, calf, pig and Otis.  But Otis can't help thinking of the scarecrow, all alone in the field, sour look and all.  As a cold rainstorm starts to usher in winter, the animals all huddle together, staying warm in each other's company under the apple tree.  As they play the quiet game, Otis keeps thinking of someone who is left out, someone who would be the best at that game.
I have always loved the Otis books.  One of the things I love best about Otis the tractor is how hard he works during the day, but how easily he slips into play mode.  The quiet game is a fun game for all of them, in part because it triggers very predictable responses from each of them.  "This made the bull chuckle with a snort.  The bull's snort would amuse the ducks...soon everyone would be laughing, snorting, quacking and giggling. "  All of the animals and Otis enjoy each other and have camaraderie no matter what they are doing.
Another thing that I loved about Otis that is consistent across all of his books is his kindness and friendship.  In the first Otis book, he and the calf bond over their play.  In this book, there can be no real connection with the scarecrow - no matter how hard Otis tries, he cannot get the scarecrow to want to be his friend.  But ultimately that doesn't matter to Otis.  Otis gives the gift of friendship to the scarecrow anyways, keeping him company on his hill.  It is a sweet, thoughtful gesture that is completely Otis.
There is one other thing that I wanted to share about these books.  I love the illustrations and how well the book design works with Long's illustrative technique.  The colors are soft and a little retro, just like Otis is.  The book as a whole looks refined and elegant, which could make the story not as relatable to young children.  But the sophisticated design and gorgeous colors are offset by the characters Long creates.  The animals, the farmer and Otis all have the most expressive faces.  They show disgust, delight, and even that sour look on the scarecrow.  And the sight of the animals all playing the quiet game is perfect - full of laughter and action.
As autumn has already transitioned into winter here, it feels like a little miracle when my favorite farmer dropped off my share a couple of days ago.  He was already in town, so I didn't make the trek out to Power this time.  He brought four full bags of potatoes, onions, garlic, spaghetti squash, eggs, and greens.  All fresh, all recently harvested, with some of the dirt from the fields still lingering.  My love for Prairie Heritage Farm and the Cowgills is like Otis' gift of friendship - it's really a gift to myself.
Gloria at the farm
Otis.  Loren Long.  Philomel Books, 2009.
Otis and the Scarecrow.  Loren Long.  Philomel Books, 2014.
Otis from my personal collection, Otis and the Scarecrow  sent by publisher for review

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Night Before Hanukkah

We are huge Natasha Wing fans around here.  I've reviewed The Night Before my Birthday and The Night Before First Grade on this blog, and we own several other titles in the series too.  As Hanukkah is approaching, we were delighted to receive The Night Before Hanukkah here at the Murray house to add to our collection.

We don't know much about Hanukkah, so I had to look up when Hanukkah begins this year.  The first night of Hanukkah begins at sundown at December 17th, with the eighth and last night being on December 24th.  Wing's story, naturally, starts with preparations for the holiday the night before Hanukkah begins.

It focuses on one family's experience of Hanukkah.  The preparations that night include decorating and baking before the children fall into bed, dreaming of the festivities to come.  On each night, the family completes another activity for Hanukkah.  The first night, the mother lights the first candle on the menorah and the family sings together.  Each of the family members opens a present on that first night as well.  On subsequent nights, they play dreidel, share the story of Hanukkah together, eat latkes and jelly doughnuts, visit with other members of the extended family, volunteer to serve others, and finally, on the last night, come back to the menorah once more.

All of Wing's books in this series are based on the famous poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas".  The rhyming structure is simple and familiar and keeps the story bouncing through each of the nights.  There is enough detail in the text to explain some of the traditions readers might not be familiar with, without giving too many extraneous details.

One of the things I like best about this particular title is the interplay between the text and illustrations.  There is no glossary of vocabulary words here.  Instead, couplets like "Dad put on his yarmulke, pinned it down on his hair" are accompanied by a spot illustration.  It is very clearly shows the father pinning on his yarmulke.  Children can see a yarmulke fairly close up in these watercolor illustrations.  They can see its approximate size, its texture, and how it fits on the father's head.  There are multiple illustrations of the family playing dreidel on the second night.  Within the text, Wing includes instructions for spinning the dreidel, the Hebrew letters, the gelt used to participate in the game, and some of the rules are also included in the text.  But Wummer also adds information through her illustrations.  Both the young boy and girl take turns spinning the dreidel on separate pages.  There are close ups of each side of the dreidel, with the name of the letter recorded beneath.  This helps readers identify which word goes with each action for the game.

All of the Hanukkah activities are ones for the whole family.  Every night this family is together.  I like that there is an emphasis on simplicity in this text.  The family doesn't go out for an expensive outing or give each other lots of presents.  The first night is the only night presents are mentioned, and both the parents are given presents the children have made for them.  It connects the holiday to mindfulness and meaning.  The entire family makes a priority to celebrate together.  It is joyous and heartfelt.

And, indeed, when on the last night, their mother realizes that there isn't a candle for the eighth space in the menorah, the family solves that problem together.  The children find a birthday candle to use in its place, and they fall asleep together in front of the menorah.

I believe this book could be used both as an introduction to Hanukkah for readers who might not know much about the holiday and as a pre-Hanukkah story for families who do celebrate.  It will be a great addition to our Natasha Wing collection, and we'll be reading it on the 16th of December.  Hopefully many of you will be reading it along with us!

The Night Before Hanukkah.  By Natasha Wing; illustrated by Amy Wummer. Grosset & Dunlap, 2014.

Thanks to Natasha Wing for appearing as part of The Night Before Hanukkah blog tour.  For other stops on the tour, go here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus

As a reader, I have always loved words - how they are created, what they mean.  I love that Frances and Gloria are beginning to learn those skills too - how words strung together can make magic happen in your heart and imagination.  Frances and I have been reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and she loves it.  She always sighs when we stop.  She tells me that it's "just getting interesting".  And Gloria listens intently, and when we come to a word she's curious about, she makes me stop reading until I've shown her the word and defined it.  Words can bring us together.  At work, my job has shifted away from librarianship and into IT.  But I'm still involved with the creation of a thesaurus for the agency.  Words never desert us.

That is never more evident than in The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus.  Peter Roget is a very young boy when his father dies.  After that, he and his family move around quite often, which leaves him lonely.  But what keeps him from feeling so lonely are his books.  "There were always plenty of them around, and he never had to leave them behind."  And eventually Roget begins to create lists of these words.  "Words, Peter learned, were powerful things.  And when he put them in long, neat rows, he felt as if the world itself clicked into order."  Eventually, Roget realized the power in having a list of exactly the right word for the right situation and decided to create one himself to help people with just that problem.

The first compilation of word lists Roget created contained more than 15,000 words!  He was also a doctor, tinkered with inventions, and tutored in a wide range of subjects when he was a young man.  But his passion was for that book of word lists.  So he kept improving it.  When it was finally published in 1852, people wanted it immediately.  It was ultimately a successful book, but Roget continued to strive to make that thesaurus better and better.

I have to admit that I am a huge Melissa Sweet fan.  One of the years I served on the Cybils Picture Book Nonfiction judging panel, we were lucky enough to consider two of her titles during our considerations - Balloons Over Broadway and Mrs. Harkness and the Panda.  I adore her whimsical collages and, the way she creates them so thoughtfully.  When I saw this book at the library, and realized that the text was written by Jen Bryant, I knew I had to read it.  Bryant has created some poetic, beautifully written biographies.  This title wowed me just as much as I suspected.  Whoever came up with the idea of having these two collaborate on this book was a genius!

From the very first page, Sweet has filled the collages with words and letters.  The title page spread features a structure built with wooden blocks.  Interspersed with the traditional blocks are blocks that feature letters in different sizes and fonts.  Letters are incorporated from the very beginning.  The title block is created on lined cards, with cataloging information next to the title, author and other information.  So right at the start, Sweet emphasizes the text and put importance on Roget's beloved words.  The very last pages, really the endpapers, are a recreation by Sweet of Roget's first thesaurus.  It is an amazing way to complete the journey, with a new appreciation of the work that went into creating the thesaurus.

Bryant also often allows Sweet's illustrations to take center stage.  Bryant describes Roget's baby sister Annette in this way: "Baby Annette slept in Mother's arms, a small pink blossom against a wall of black."  It is poetic, encompassing the fragility of a baby, and Annette's humanity in contrast to her grieving mother's black clothing.  The illustration is just as starkly poignant as the text, with Peter peering out of a coach window and a pink blossom cascading down the page against a background of velvety black. Across from that illustration is a graphic showing the family's travel from Bern, Switzerland to London, England after Peter's father died.

The back matter is just as fascinating and exquisite as the rest of the book Roget began by making a list of the main events in his life, entitled "List of Principal Events".  Bryant takes this list one step further and adds in world events to give Roget's life historical context.  There are also author and illustrator notes, where Bryant and Sweet describe how Roget's work inspired them.  Finally, there is a page that includes a selected bibliography, a list of titles for additional reference and the source of quotations in the text.  The back matter helps solidify this glorious book as a work of art and nonfiction.  I learned so much from this book about a man whose book I had often used but never marveled over.  Roget's thesaurus is a work of imagination as well as classification.

The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus .  Jen Bryant; Melissa Sweet.  Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014.

Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Friday, November 7, 2014

Atlantia and a GIVEAWAY!!!

This post includes a super exciting giveaway at the end, but don't just skip down to the end to enter.  All right, skip right down to the end to enter, but come right back to read what I have to say about Atlantia.

First of all, I had never read a book by Ally Condie before, although I had certainly heard of her, and I knew her books.  But they came out at a time that I was a little worn out with dystopian books, so I just hadn't gotten around to reading them yet.  Even though I hadn't read the Matched series, I still knew I should grab the chance when Penguin offered me an Advanced Reader's Copy of Atlantia.  I had been seeing advance publicity, and I was excited to read something so popular before it came out.

I was sucked into the world of Atlantia right away, and barely came up to breathe.  Rio and her twin sister Bay have been raised by their mother, Oceana, Below, in Atlantia.  Below is the privileged place to live - when it was created deep under the ocean, families Above sent one member down to survive.  The rest of the family remained Above, exposed to terrible pollution.  The people Above provide all the food; the people Below provide all the ore out of their underwater mines.

The balance has been kept between Above and Below.  One child in each family must stay Below; all those who choose the Above select a life of sacrifice.  They also have no contact with the Below.  As soon as they make their choice, they are whisked away, without even a chance to say goodbye to their family Below.  Rio has always dreamt of going Above.  For her, the life of sacrifice and lack of contact are a trade-off for the experiences of air and land.  And she has always known that her sister Bay will stay Below with their mother.

But not long before the ceremony where Bay and Rio will announce their choice, their mother dies.  In an odd turn of events, she died on her sister Maire's doorstep, and there is no real reason Oceana should have died.  Oceana had very little contact with her sister, Maire, so it is especially odd that she died there, as if she was going to tell Maire something.  Maire is a siren, and sirens are treated very carefully in Atlantia.  They are believed to be a miracle, but their voices are so commanding and seductive.  Like the sirens of mythology, people must beware of them.  The sirens must report to the Council as children, and are used for the Council's work.  Because of their seductive singing, the Minister must prove themselves strong enough to resist the sirens and their call.  Maire has always been stronger than the other sirens, and is more of a wild card.  There are fewer and fewer sirens in Atlantia.  And Rio holds a secret that only two other people know - that she is a siren too.

The twists start coming early on in this novel.  Within the first chapter, everything Rio has ever known or believed about her twin, Bay, is challenged and turned upside down.  While Rio is reeling from this stunning knowledge, the only family she has left is Maire.  Knowing that Maire is a powerful siren, and knowing that Oceana never told Maire about Rio's power, Rio is faced with another decision - can she trust Maire with her secret?

I couldn't stop reading this novel.  I read it on the Kindle app, and found it much easier to lose track of how much I've read when there aren't any page numbers.  Condie's writing was magical too.  It sets a tone from the first page.  You are with Rio as she discovers the true Atlantia.  She begins to see Atlantia with clear eyes, but they are also eyes clouded with the pain of losing her mother, confusion around her sister and Bay's secrets, and full of the struggle to be herself, even though she must hide her voice.

There is so much to talk about in this book.  I found Condie's world-building fascinating.  Below was created with so many details that are tiny in themselves, but add up to a complete world.  For instance, there are mines in the water surrounding Atlantia, to keep people from trying to escape from the Below.  Atlantia itself was built sort of in the shape of an octopus, with the temple in the middle, and tentacles cascading outwards.  I don't want to talk about anything that might be a spoiler, so I won't say more about Atlantia.  But one thing I thought was important was the humanity of everyone we encounter in Atlantia.  No one (not even the sirens) has fish gills to breathe, or a mermaid tail.  They breathe air pumped into Atlantia, and experience life in much the same way the rest of us do.  If Atlantia wasn't underwater, it might seem a little like an indoor mall.  The evil in this book comes from other humans, not from creatures of the deep.

And there are powerful themes woven throughout this book - family, especially (and obviously) the way sisters interact, truth, power, and control.  The themes are developed delicately, and you truly experience everything through Rio's eyes as she struggles with who she must become.  I really loved this book, and I encourage you all to read it.

If you'd like to read it for yourself, I have an amazing opportunity to win a copy signed by Ally Condie herself!  Penguin Teen has ever so graciously allowed me to give away a copy.  I can't wait to see who wins!  Use the Rafflecopter link here to enter and good luck!  The giveaway ends on November 14th, and I will notify the winner by email.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Atlantia.  Ally Condie.  Penguin, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review

Saturday, October 25, 2014

We Gather Together

Most years here in Montana, autumn is short.  Usually by now, we've had snow multiple times.  The fall leaves have all blown away in storms where the wind whips through the streets.  This year, though, we've had a surprising season - yes, we've already had snow, but only twice. Our fall leaves are still in piles on the ground, and I was wearing flip flops until last week!  Now the Montana weather is very changeable, and all our Halloween costumes still have warm clothes underneath.  But we're enjoying the actual fall right now!

And that's why we've been loving  We Gather Together: Celebrating the Harvest Season this year too.  I requested the new paperback version of this 2006 title through my new relationship with Penguin Books for Young Readers, and it came at the perfect time.  The fall equinox was on September 23rd this year, and, a month later, we are waiting impatiently for daylight savings time to fall back.  It's dark until after 7am each morning, and only light in the evenings until about 7pm.  Frances and Gloria have a hard time getting up in the mornings (although it is easier to get them to go to sleep!).
So it's helpful to have a book like this to help us really investigate fall.  It's often blink-and-you-miss-it here, and the nearest corn maze is more than 90 minutes away.  We move from being sad about summer ending, with our farm and garden crops being put to bed, to being immersed in winter.  In this title, Pfeffer does an amazing job of helping kindergarten through 3rd graders learn all about the harvest season.
She begins by describing how animals use fall to prepare for the winter, including foxes burying rodent leftovers to eat later (gross!) and beavers storing twigs and sticks underwater for when their ponds are iced over.  Pfeffer explains  how humans don't need to store so much food anymore, because our grocery stores transport perishable items from the other side of the world when they are out of season here.  The text then discusses the fall equinox and defines it for readers (that the nights equal the days and then become longer than the days as we become closer to winter).  This also signals the time to harvest all over the world.
As the days begin to cool off, and the summer sun no longer shines, crops can't make the food they need.  Those crops must also be harvested before the first true freeze of the winter.  The text then considers peoples throughout history - cavemen, Ancient Egyptians, the Wampanoags - and how they harvested.  Pfeffer tells readers "Over the centuries, people celebrated plentiful harvests and passed down traditions, at different times in different places, and in different ways. All over the world, harvest celebrations from the past are still being carried on today."  The text goes on to talk about harvesting and harvest celebrations around the world, including in India, Japan, Jewish culture and others.
One of the things that I like the most about We Gather Together is how well Pfeffer handles the diversity of information that's contained within this book.  There's science, social studies and environmentalism all contained within its pages.  These could be overwhelming, particularly to a young reader.  But the text is general and fairly brief.  It gives interesting information and helps children imagine themselves in the many cultures and time periods.  While each page has five to seven lines of text, the vocabulary is fairly simple for children to digest and comprehend.
Another thing that makes the book easy to use is the large scale illustrations.  The colors are vibrant, yet autumnal in tone throughout most of the book.  They are mostly double page spreads, and the text blocks vary throughout the book.  It really allows readers to balance the longer text with looking at the detailed illustrations.  It gives them a sense of a variety of cultural styles and details.  Bleck's illustrations help give life to the traditions and harvests of many cultures.
Finally, I love the back matter in this title.  There is a huge amount of back matter for a picture book nonfiction title.  There are facts about the equinox, science experiments, a recipe, a list of harvest festivals, a bibliography and websites.  It is all well-done, and the science experiments include additional questions for reflection.  I think this makes this title incredibly useful in classrooms and at home.  It has already spurred some great conversations here.  It's helping us enjoy this season before it too quickly disappears.
We Gather Together: Celebrating the Harvest Season.  Wendy Pfeffer; illustrated by Linda Bleck.  Puffin Books, 2006.
sent by the publisher.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Theseus and the Minotaur

"Adventure, mythology, and a Minotaur!
What's not to like?"
 - Frank Cammuso
(from back cover)
I'm not sure I've ever written about Greek or Roman mythology on my blog.  While I've read books of both kinds, I think mythology didn't really come to life for me until I read the Percy Jackson series, much like many readers today.  I've always loved the clever way that Rick Riordan weaves multiple strands of the myths together.  But this first book in the TOON Graphics for Visual Readers series, Theseus and the Minotaur, brings a reality to the myths, brings them to life.

The story opens with a man retelling this myth to two young people on a boat.  He reminds them (and the reader) "This is an ancient one, a heroic tale that has been told thousands of times, transformed by generations of narrators with fertile imaginations." (p. 9)  It is a terrific opening, particularly because this story has many layers of gods and men and wars.  So many layers that I am not sure I can even sum it all up successfully in a way that makes sense.  But I'll try!

Pommaux weaves two strands of the myth together to create one storyline.  First there is the story of Theseus' mother, Aethra.  On the same day, she was in a "watery embrace" with Poseidon, and met and married King Aegeus in secret.  Later, when she delivered her baby boy, Theseus, she believed he had two fathers - a god and a king.  In the meantime, King Aegeus had returned to his country (where he was married to another woman, Medea) and his worries about his country's impending struggle with the island of Crete.  Crete's ruler, Minos had some son issues of his own.  His son, Asterion, was born of his wife's love for a beautiful white bull, and was "monstrous" (p. 15) - half-man, half-bull.  Asterion is better known as the Minotaur.  In order to keep Crete safe from the Minotaur, Minos built a labyrinth.  He ordered Aegeus to bring him tributes on a regular basis.  Those tributes would go into the labyrinth and never return.

Whew! Dizzy yet?  I have to admit, I read this story a few times through before I was able to distill it into its core facts.  And this isn't because Pommaux adds in unnecessary details or spends too much time creating a family tree.  On the contrary, Pommaux uses descriptive language, but in a simple style of writing.  For instance, "Crazed with grief, Minos threatened to wage war against Aegeus unless, every nine years, he sent seven Athenian young men and seven Athenian young women to the Labyrinth." (p. 19)  I love how Pommaux describes Minos as crazed with grief.  I think that is a term that readers may not come across often, but it gives a strong explanation to Minos' actions.  But I digress...

The reason it is so difficult to simplify this text into a couple of paragraphs of summary is because the mythology is complicated.  There are reasons why the humans in this story act the ways they do - love, pride, anger, fear, bravery.  There are reasons, too, why the gods act the way they do - jealousy, temptation, boredom.  All of those individual emotions and actions wreak havoc with the lives down below.  Minos is responsible for appeasing the gods, and asks for a sign from Poseidon.  Poseidon sends a glorious bull, but demands it be sacrificed to him.  Minos ignores Poseidon because he thinks the bull is so beautiful.  So Poseidon gets angry and makes Minos' wife fall in love with the bull.  And we all know how that ends...with the Minotaur.

There are certain themes that Pommaux brings up in the text over and over again.  One of those is the contradiction between free will and fate.  It is Minos' free will that keeps him from doing what Poseidon requires and sacrificing the bull.  Is it his wife's fate to be in love with a bull, or to be the mother of the Minotaur?  Or is it not fate, because Poseidon created this situation as a punishment for Minos?  Minos is a particularly fascinating character to me.  He is proud, brash, a little bit ugly (both physically and in character), yet he never seems to learn from either his punishments or his mistakes.  He sends his beloved son, Androgeous, to Athens, to boast of his strength and might.  Minos loves his son very much, but it is more important to Minos to show him off.  And of course, Minos risks Androgeos' life by doing so.  I feel a little bit of pity for Minos and his bull-headedness.

There are many, many things to discuss in this story - brains v. brawn, the father-son relationships that we see depicted, the idea of the labyrinth... And these multiple themes point out that this is a leap for TOON Books.  Their previous titles have been mostly aimed at beginning readers (with the exception of The Secret of the Stone Frog).  This book marks the start of a new series of titles.  These TOON Graphics for Visual Readers are exciting in their own right.  The books are larger in size (8 1/2 x 11), but the covers have the same smooth, high quality feel.  If you couldn't tell from the summary of the myth, the subject matter is also suited to a slightly older reader.  The fact that the myth is so complex, and rich with thematic matter, means there is lots to discuss with older readers.  To aid in discussion, there is a list of possible questions on the inside back cover.

In this title in the series, I am also really pleased with the shift towards nonfiction.  Not many publishers pay attention to all of the little details that make a book useful in the classroom.  And there are many details that are used effectively here.  There is a map of the action on the front inside cover, pronunciation of the Greek names throughout the text, further reading and an illustrated index.  And if all of that wasn't enough, there is my favorite part - trading card sized text boxes that remind readers of all of the main characters in this story.  The "trading cards" include facts about the characters' families, birth places, siblings, and the meaning of their names.  There is so much supplemental information included here.

I can't wait to explore other titles in this series and I will share them with you in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in more information about the series, there was a great article about TOON Books in the New York Times a few weeks ago, located here.  For now, Theseus and the Minotaur is a great place to start.

Theseus and the Minotaur.  Yvan Pommaux.  TOON Books, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review